Sunday, January 17, 2010

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow creeps...

“Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time.
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” - Macbeth, Act V, scene 5, lines 19-28


I got a lot of strange looks as a kid. This could have been due to a series of depressing bowl cuts my Mom gave me throughout the Ford/Carter eras or the terrible checkered polyester slacks and red Winnie-the-Pooh turtle neck sets she insisted I wear every day of elementary school. Mom said she purchased them out of the Sears Back-to-School catalogue, but basically they just got my life threatened on a daily basis. Let’s face it, playground kids are hard pressed to forgive the village dork for dressing funny, and so for a time I was lumped in with the social rejects. At least I wasn’t Shelley “Booger Eater” McKee or Todd “Smells his own Farts” Jenson.”
Those guys were real hosers.
But to keep the bullies off my back, I developed the one extra special talent that the farm boys would never be able to touch me with: Performance Art. Of course, this talked me into more fights than out of them, but it was better than standing there and taking abuse any day.
Mostly though, it just made people crinkle up their faces and shake their heads. Unsuspecting teachers. Bewildered neighbors. Snooty church ladies. Glossy-eyed store clerks. No one became immune to my special ability to quote entire comedy scenes from Happy Days or M.A.S.H. and do goofy impressions I felt an overwhelming burning desire to unburden myself with.
My shamelessness knew no boundaries.
W.C. Fields, Jimmy Stewart, Yogi Berra, Mussolini, Steve Martin. I could do them all. Yet instead of laughing most just turned and hurried away.
I remember once in the cafeteria as a third grader I approached a stern face Lunch Lady and, speaking with a pathetic Oliver Twist British accent, asked, “Please sir, I want some more?” To which she pointed angrily at a stack of neatly piled steaming corndogs on the trolley cart and from behind a white mesh hair net scowled, “Every kid gets but one wiener. No more. No less.”
Church was another place I earned public disdain. I remember once approaching famously mutton-chopped offering usher John Bingham with my impersonation of Chewbacca meeting Groucho Marx, “This morning I shot a Wookie in my pajamas.” I tapped an invisible cigar in front of him and howled. “How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.”
“Huh?” He groaned, the gray tips of whiskers tickling my nose.
To this I simply made slow motion light saber moves and cut him to shreds. Later I heard him exclaim to a group of choir members, “That Hartenstein boy just ain’t right.”
Undaunted, I took it as a sign my act was getting better.
Yet nowhere did my efforts to achieve performance brilliance fall so flat than in the classroom. Sour faced teachers carrying paddles hissed when I tried giving my history speech on Charlemagne in a French accent, and glaring spectacles hung on the edge of witchlike noses as I attempted to do an interpretive dance to recorders playing Hot Cross Buns.
School just sucked.
Yep, I’d say for kids like me, where everything funny was based on absolute fear, the only thing that could suck the joy out of life faster than going to school was my mom getting the bowl out of the pantry shelf, setting two yellow phone books atop the high stool, and saying, “Hairs getting pretty long, Mister, time for a cut.”
So what did I go and do? I became a teacher. Smart huh?
Now it is almost thirty years later and I have spent half this time trying my hardest to make studying fun. It hasn’t always been easy. You’d be surprised how reluctant students are to just having a blast: Mandatory Secret Santas? Mock Trials in-character? Impromptu games of underleg freeze tag? I’ve thrown the kitchen sink at kids with mixed results.
“Do we really have to dress up as the character in the book?”
“I won’t be able to participate in the tea party, I’m getting a new ant farm this week and…”
“Yeah, sure. Gotcha!”
It’s always the same.
Today was no different.
I am standing on stage of the school’s theater pleading with my students to give me more feeling in their performance and they are looking at me like I am crazy. Michael doesn’t want to wear his Lady MacGaga costume, and Aimee and Aden don’t have a dance off routine yet, and somebody needs to make the “Stinky Tofu” box and all the Logo Posters, and my daughter’s are sick and I will have to stay home tomorrow and miss a valuable day of rehearsal, and wouldn’t you know it, Bloodthirsty Mary, the one who wrote the essay about how humans are naturally damned because they only have evil in the hearts, walked into the theater this morning and began screaming, “Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth!” This at the top of her lungs, and now it is just swelling, just piling up around me. Then the bell rings and the students saunter off and here I am scribbling on my script and somebody yells, “Last one out, turn off the lights.” And then in a blink I am in the dark, sitting on the lip of the stage in pitch black knowing I will have to baby step toward the exit, wishing I remembered to bring my flashlight but now will have to just feel my way out in the dark. Only art can save me now.

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